They call autistic children little scientists…

A Teaching Aside

Wednesday was a hard day for me emotionally. I was working with my afternoon class of autistic children and helping them to make “stained glass windows” using magic markers, coffee filters, and a water dropper. Once they all added probably 1/2 liter of water to each coffee filter before I could grab them (I was holding onto a particularly squirmy child to keep him on task and thus had very limited reach), they started to become obsessed with the water on the table, which by now was much prettier than their coffee filters.

One of them looked at me, cocked his head to the left and then screamed at the top of his lungs, “I am a scientists!” as he took a drop of his blue pool of water and his neighbor’s green pool of water and mixed them together in a clear cup, then dumped the resulting liquid out on the table. Immediately, there was a surge of 6 year olds with droppers mixing colors and seeking my approval of their experimentation. All day as I was working with small groups of students they spontaneously began to “be scientists” and mix colors. One even figured out if they grabbed a coffee filter from me and dipped it into each of the pools it would capillary up and mix in the middle of the filter.

One of them, a little girl, notified me on Thursday that she was going to be a scientist. I asked her what kind of scientist she was going to be she told me, “the bestest one”. I asked again, what was she going to study as a scientist and she told me she was “…going to cure people”. There was no answer of what, be she was dead serious and was not going to be talked out of it by anyone!

About this time the head teacher in the classroom decided to blow my cover and announced to the group that I used to be a scientist before I came into the class to work with them. Lucky for me, this only led to hugs and happy kids asking me to help them make their water prettier. I did have to describe how I used to study children with developmental disorders and see if there was a way I could help them. They liked that. Particularly the one who is proud of being autistic. He wants me to study him (little does he know I already am!).


This experience touched me for two reasons, the first is that my brother loved education and died within a few months of my receiving my doctorate. I still cannot think of autism and science without tearing up a little bit. Mostly because I regret he was not able to see me finish my education. And had we really let him reach his potential, he may potentially had graduated right along with me.

The second reason is that it is truly sad that we as a society will never give this little girl a fighting chance to be a scientist. She is branded with a label that she will never be given a chance to shed, at least not at this point in time. There is too much stigma for her to fight against. The scientific community should be better than that, but I know from experience that they are most decidedly not. And that makes me very, very sad.

Advertisements

6 thoughts on “They call autistic children little scientists…

  1. It sounds like an entertaining way to spend the day, watching children mix water and colors on a table and making observations about it.

    Why is it that anyone would hold it against the girl for wanting to become a scientist even though she has autism? It seems that the use of that label works two ways, either for or against someone, depending on the situation – in Silicon Valley, it’s said many workers in the computer industry have autism and Asperger’s, and that even some companies go so far as to select some employees based on that because of their perceived attention to detail and focus. I could imagine some institutions might specifically look for employees to do research for the same reason, right or wrong,

    On one hand, some people will say that those with autism are savants, and value them. And then on the other hand, some people will label them as dysfunctional. I wish that in general people would look at others as people, and value them as individuals – and the label if used tends to lead to prejudging others.

    Like

    1. It is fun! I love it!

      I wish your perspectives were shared by everyone, I really do. But I am pessimistic whenever I look out and see the societal bias that stacks the deck against the autistic worker that just wants to support themselves and contribute.

      In a perfect world we would identify the specific strengths in all people and find them jobs that release their potential. Unfortunately, we do not live in that world. Our society demands grace and punishes awkwardness with social ridicule and isolation. Despite reports of great progress, individuals on the autism spectrum are still actively discriminated against. Worse for women on the spectrum, infinitely worse.

      Using my example of this little girl, why do we not have tons and tons of autistic scientists? Why is Silicon Valley not chock full of autistic programmers? More to the point, why does Silicon Valley not proclaim that they are actively employing nonverbal autistics that are brilliant but require job coaching? It is one thing to employ an outwardly normal individual that has Asperger Syndrome, but another entirely to employ someone that is more profoundly impacted (e.g., nonverbal, requires job coaching, co-morbid tic disorder, etc). Now I think of it, why is it still newsworthy to proclaim to the world to brag that you employ autistic people?

      Until we grow as a society that we stop shallowly judging behavior based on our own prejudiced bias this is going to continue to be a problem. And over the last few years this discrimination has actually gotten worse to my eyes. The discriminatory comments are no longer whispered, they are openly declared without fear of rebuke. This deeply worries me.

      Like

  2. “More to the point, why does Silicon Valley not proclaim that they are actively employing nonverbal autistics that are brilliant but require job coaching? It is one thing to employ an outwardly normal individual that has Asperger Syndrome, but another entirely to employ someone that is more profoundly impacted (e.g., nonverbal, requires job coaching, co-morbid tic disorder, etc). ”

    Maybe it’s because those companies are actually unwilling to invest in employing nonverbal autistics who require job coaching? I’m not certain what companies are willing to do or are already doing; I don’t know – and I’m not aware of how many companies in Silicon Valley are actively recruiting employees with autism who are also willing to supply coaching. I only know that I come across articles now and then about those who socialize differently and are verbal and highly skilled in computer science and/or engineering. Nonverbal autistics seem to not be mentioned, to be invisible in the media. Is there discrimination? Are companies not accepting them, or is it that it is happening but it’s not hitting the media because those employees are not interview-worthy for the paper or for a news magazine on TV? That it’s not a “heart warming human interest story” from their point of view if they can’t get people to interact on camera?

    “Now I think of it, why is it still newsworthy to proclaim to the world to brag that you employ autistic people?”

    Do they know there is a line to be drawn between promoting your company as a place where everyone is accepted and encouraged to use their talents and skills regardless of ability or disability and singling out people and labeling them as being somehow less-than and charity cases which the company took under its wing?

    This is what I and others call “othering”. It’s subtle, often unconsciously motivated, and it’s a position a company or organization takes on where it steps in to help those it views as less fortunate and holds a host of other judgements about those who it is helping rather than than viewing those it helps in terms of providing a level playing field for opportunities. It’s more about self-promotion, and telling the public, “See what we are doing to help the poor ____ and what a responsible company we are” rather than just valuing each individual who applies and becoming more knowledgable about how to work with different kinds of people with different learning styles and work styles.

    I’ve smacked up against othering when it comes to discussions about companies wanting to employ more disabled people in general, and promoting their wanting to be seen as supporting people with disabilities yet not being willing to do what it truly takes to support disabled people on the job and understand how the workplace and work best could be arranged from their perspective.

    “Until we grow as a society that we stop shallowly judging behavior based on our own prejudiced bias this is going to continue to be a problem. And over the last few years this discrimination has actually gotten worse to my eyes.”

    Nods. I agree. Why do you think it has gotten worse?

    Like

    1. I agree with your points above. We have to all get over ourselves, then we can work on inclusion.

      I think things have gotten worse because autism is no longer a taboo topic to breach. If anyone who does anything illegal or wrong is on the spectrum the news immediately says it was Asperger Syndrome that made them do it, they did it because they were autistic; which could not be further from the truth in the vast majority of cases. Also, now that autism is common (1:68 based on latest numbers in 2002 births), it is easy to use as a scapegoat because they cannot defend themselves from the accusations.

      Like

  3. The company Specialisterne (ie The Specialists) is having great success at matching people on the autistic spectrum with jobs that require specialist skills with systematic approach and attention to detail. They have expanded their matchmaking business to ten countries already. See Specialisterne.com

    Like

    1. Thanks! I had heard of them but forgot about them until you provided this link. Let us hope their work expands to all countries where there is a need.

      Like

I would love to hear your thoughts on this!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s